The Secret Life of Houdini

Author: William Kalush and Larry Sloman
Publisher: Atria Books, 2006

Did you see the movie, THE PRESTIGE? It wasn't a big hit, and probably shouldn't have been for a whole host of reasons - but then, I'm not the movie critic here. I happened to have thoroughly enjoyed that film, and I also enjoyed one of those serendipity moments in starting to read the new biography of Harry Houdini at about the same time that I saw the movie. There were many parallels.

Harry Houdini was a rock star. (The rock star status of magicians in the Gilded Age was made clear in THE PRESTIGE.) He was young, gifted, handsome, hyper, and married to (or in a lifetime relationship with, there is some debate) a long-suffering and deeply troubled woman.

And... he just may have been a spy.

The books opens with an introduction in which the authors claim that they will debunk some widespread Houdini myths - that he died performing his Water Torture Cell trick; that he had a mother fixation; and that he was merely a gifted showman or stage magician. "Ironically," they tell us, "the real story is better."

Except for the fixation on his mother part - it seems that may very well have been true, though not neccesarily in an unseemly way - the book does tell the story of Houdini as it has probably never been told before.

Harry Houdini was born in Hungary to Cecilia and Mayer Samuel Weisz sometime in the early to mid-1870s. Though he later claimed to have been born American, young Erik Weisz (Harry's birthname) was with them when they landed In New York City on July 3, 1878, a child of approximately 4.

The family eventually settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Mayer Samuel began conducting services as a Hebrew Rabbi. When, some years later, the faithful of Weisz's temple chose not to rehire him, the family relocated to Milwaukee, and young Erik went to work.

It was an early job that sent him down his life's path, though hardly in a predictable manner. Ehrich (the spelling of his name Harry had adopted) went to work for a locksmith, turning a natural talent for and fascination with locks into an apprenticeship at Hanauer's locksmiths, where he soon developed a reputation for being able to pick just about any lock.

But more than locks, Houdini was fascinated with circus acts, and having seen a few high wire acts, he set to work to become "the most skilled contortionist of all time."

Part of Houdini's single-minded devotion to becoming the best at almost anything he tried was innate - he was just born that way. And part of it was his devotion to his family. His father having failed in his later years to be an effective provider, Harry felt the burden pass along to him, and he was determined that his beloved mother would never do without.

By the 1890s, Harry and his brothers were living in New York City, and Harry had discovered Robert-Houdin, the great stage magician of the 1800s. After reading a book of Robert-Houdin's life, Ehrich Weisz "died," and Harry Houdini was born. A friend, Jacob Hyman, "told Harry that adding the letter "i" to a person's anme in the French language means "like" that person." Harry Houdini wanted nothing more than to be "like" Robert-Houdin.

The authors employ an interesting device of misdirection at the start of some chapters - leading the reader to believe that he is reading an episode of Houdini's life, only to discover that it is an incident peripheral to Houdini's story, or about someone who had some influence on the great escape artist.

But directly or indirectly, the middle chapters of the book are more of the same, over and over. Once Houdini is established as an escape artist - early in his career - it seems he repeats his feats over and over again, as do the writers. What made Houdini the "great," however, was his astounding ability to make the same old stuff interesting, over and over again. At first, Houdini's claim to fame was his ability to get out of just about any handcuffs that he was trapped in. While it may have seemed like magic, the artist used a combination of deep knowledge, a contortionist's ability to twist himself into small and pretzel-like packages, and outright trickery in having concealed master picks in his hair, mouth, even anus, for later retrieval once he was out of sight in his "magic box."

And while audiences didn't seem to tire easily of this trick, and his "Metamorphosis,"(in which a man goes in a box and is replaced by a beautiful woman), a trick similar to the Vanishing Man trick in the movie, THE PRESTIGE, Houdini kept his act fresh with his own singular brand of showmanship, and by adding to the suspense and danger with added challenges, both to himself, and to his audience.

For example, he didn't just break out of handcuffs, he challenged police officers in the towns he visited to bring along their very best handcuffs - and he, Houdini, could escape from them. He later added visits to the local constabulary, during which he broke out of jail cells, moved prisoners around from cell to cell, and gave the police officers advice about how to beef up their security.

It was this sort of activity, as well as his friendship and correspondence with the man who would run MI-5, that sparked the rumor that Houdini was as much investigating as he was entertaining during his extended tours of Germany and Russia in the years around World War I. And who better than an escape artist, who had already established a pattern for visiting all the secure areas of a city, to learn all the particulars and vulnerabilities of a city the Allies might be interested in?

Billed as The Handcuff King, Houdini developed many imitators - one of them his own brother, who adopted the name Hardeen, and was frequently "licensed" to use Houdini's routines and magical effects - while other imitators and competition were not. In fact, Houdini had more than one shouting match with "fake" Handcuff Kings as, in disguise, he visited their stage shows only to show them up for the imposters that they were. (Some wonder if all of it wasn't a setup created by Houdini to keep interest in his shows fresh. It is certain that at least some Houdini rivals were paid accomplices, all part of an elaborate plan to draw attention to Houdini's latest escapade.

Soon, Houdini added more and different escapes to his routine: strait jackets, bags, coffins, water-filled cells. He jumped into rivers while fettered; he was buried alive in small boxes; he escaped from strait jackets while suspended in mid-air.

About this time, the Spiritualism craze flashed across the United States - some of it concentrated right here in Upstate New York, with the celebrated Fox Sisters, and the little town of Lilydale, New York - still a center for Spiritualism. Spiritualism was considered a religion, and had adherents as well-known and well-respected as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In fact, Conan Doyle and Houdini became good friends for a period of time, Houdini respectfully dancing away from a direct confrontation with Conan Doyle's dogged belief in the visits from The Other Side, and bolstered by their mutual interest in proving communication with the dead possible. Houdini, of course, had the advantage over Doyle in knowing how all the stage tricks were done - and how to make the impossible seem simple. Conan Doyle had a deep personal interest in Spiritualism being proven true - his beloved wife claimed to be a medium. And Houdini eventually had an equally strong wish to know if he could communicate with his beloved mother. But while Houdini knew it wasn't his mother speaking to him in fluent, unbroken English from across The Great Divide (she never spoke anything but Yiddish), Conan Doyle never caught on to the fact that his wife's Spirit Guide, Phineas, impatiently called him insulting names when Doyle didn't do his (or her?) bidding quickly enough.

Eventually, the rift between the Spiritualists and Houdini came out in public, and it was bitter. Even as Houdini perfected further and more spectacular feats of escape, he worked equally hard at proving most practicing Spiritualists to be fakers and charlatans. At the time, it was not uncommon for false messages from Beyond to demand that living relatives invest every cent in various schemes typically concocted by the medium, or some agent - only to have the medium disappear, leaving behind a sadder, wiser, and definitely poorer dupe. Others became "spiritual advisers" to wealthy and unhappy souls who supported these advisers in comfort in exchange for messages from their loved ones who had crossed over.

It all outraged Houdini. And eventually, it seems clear, it killed him.

Houdini had a standing challenge that he could withstand a punch from any gentleman who cared to throw one. Usually, of course, the challenge was taken up when Houdini was on stage, and prepared. But on at least one fatal occasion, it did not.

Did Houdini know that his end was coming, or is that another part of the myth? It was often the case that Houdini performed even when ill, injured, or exhausted. One particular evening, in Montreal, Houdini gave a show and lecture in which he excoriated some of the more popular mediums of the time, and later, surrounded by admirers, was challenged to take a blow to his stomach. He did, though over 50 years old, and suffering from an assortment of ills, including an apparent broken leg.

Two days later, Houdini, looking drawn and colorless, and still limping from his wounded ankle, was posing for a portrait, lying full length on a couch in his dressing room. A young man, J. Gordon Whitehead, who claimed to be a fraternity brother of the young man who had punched him days before, was in the dressing room and began asking Houdini a series of questions - such as "What is your opinion of the miracles mentioned in the Bible?" Houdini demurred, and Whitehead then pressed the magician about his ability to withstand blows to his abdomen. Challenging him to a punch, Whitehead, without waiting for permission, struck four or five times. By Monday, Houdini was in the hospital with a ruptured appendix - and he never recovered.

The Spiritualist Community - at least, the charlatan faction of it - had strong reasons to want Houdini out of the way. And there was no lack of crowing and gratification when he died. Spiritualists immediately tried to enlist poor, drunk, drug-addled Bess, Houdini's wife, into schemes to contact the dead magician. Houdini and Bess frequently "conversed" on stage via a code that enabled them to pass information, making it appear that Houdini had magical, mentalist powers. Using a variation of that code, Houdini promised to communicate with Bess from the Other Side, if such a thing were possible.

Bess, silly and rendered easy prey by her intemperate ways, confided the "secret" code to more than one person - including, fortunately, a reporter who managed to expose the whole scheme to "prove" that Houdini was communicating from Beyond the Veil.

Eventually, Bess admitted, "Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me - or to anyone... I do not believe that ghosts or spirits exist. The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently - turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry."

As I said at the beginning of the review, Houdini was a rock star. His is a fascinating story, full of intrigue, passion, brilliance, and wild ideas.

So, why isn't the book? Though the film, THE PRESTIGE, managed to convey a bit more of the life that must have been an entertainer's of Houdini's ilk at that time, even the movie lacked, well - should I say it? Magic. And so does the book. It is an excellent, and well-researched accounting of the life of the man. The authors have gone to extraordinary lengths to track his movements around the world, and combine clues from newspapers, letters, and other documentation to demonstrate what must have been going on in his life at any given moment. They recite certain (we assume) recorded dialog from stage shows - though why everyone in these conversations "screams" I don't understand - and probably invent other conversations, but in a manner so stilted it's hard to believe that even in the 1890s people sounded so robotic.

Still, for all its detail and comprehensiveness, the book lacks fun, intensity, mystery - the very things that no doubt, made Houdini "the Great," and not just another Handcuff King. I was left feeling that for all the deft sleights-of-hand I had witnessed, I just wasn't having a very good time. Houdini could have done it better.


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